Throughout the 2013-14 NBA season, the Miami Heat have looked more concerned with preserving their health and energy for an eventual title run than playing like the team that won two consecutive NBA championships. While such a strategy has some logic, it inspired questions about the Heat's ability to win a third straight title. Would they be able to turn it on in the postseason? Could they really just unleash maximum power when they decided it was time?
If Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals is any indication, then the answer to all those questions is a resounding yes. Continuing what we saw in the dominant second half in their Game 3 win, the Heat controlled the Indiana Pacers for virtually all 48 minutes for a 102-90 victory. They now take a 3-1 series lead and pull to within one win of the franchise's fourth consecutive NBA Finals appearance, which just happens to cover every season sinceLeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh joined forces in the summer of 2010. The Heat's season-long plan appears to have worked, because they're hitting peak form at the perfect time.
Miami's excellent performance didn't seem like a sure thing at tipoff. With active big man Chris "Birdman" Andersen out with a calf injury and perimeter-oriented forward Rashard Lewis inserted into the starting lineup for Udonis Haslem, the Pacers appeared to have a clear size advantage with the opportunity to exploit Lewis and Bosh, a player who just recently said he no longer likes to bang in the paint. Yet that apparent weakness turned into a strength, with Bosh scoring the first eight points of the game on two 3-pointers and another jumper. The All-Star was terrific in the first half, shooting 7 of 11 from the field and 3 of 5 from beyond the arc for 17 of his eventual 25 points. It was a meaningful return to form for Bosh, who had shot 12 of 33 on field goals in the series' first three games.
At the same time, the Pacers saw several key players regress. While Paul George and David West put forth solid shooting performances, both Lance Stephenson and Roy Hibbert played at levels far below where they'd been previously against the Heat. Stephenson, one of the chief catalysts for the Pacers offense, picked up his third foul in the first minute of the second quarter and was essentially a non-factor. After seemingly returning to relevance in the past few weeks, Hibbert once again played like the guy who became a major target of criticism against the Atlanta Hawks in the postseason's opening round. Hibbert's issues started early, but his full-game line of no points on 0-of-5 shooting, five rebounds, one block and four fouls speaks to how little he did to help Indiana's cause. As such, the Pacers entered the halftime break down 49-44 and in need of improvement to keep hope alive.
Instead, the Heat took full control in the third quarter. An opening 9-1 run put the Pacers in a tough position, and the Heat never really allowed them to string together any sort of consistent success on their way to a 31-20 advantage in the period. The scoring was there, but the most meaningful change for the Heat of late has been the return of their swarming defense. That activity has led to fast-break opportunities and created the sort of tempo and flow this team needs to play its best.
Then again, it doesn't hurt to have James around to snuff out the opponent's hope of winning. James was instrumental in the third quarter, scoring 14 of his game-high 32 points (on 13-of-21 shooting). We've seen this kind of performance from LeBron many times before, but that consistency doesn't make his impact (or highlights) any less remarkable. His combination of experience and ability is simply unmatched at this point of his career.
Miami built its lead to a high of 23 points at the 7:41 mark of the fourth quarter, at which point a blowout looked in hand. Indiana fought back with a 15-3 run to get the margin down to 97-86 with 4:00 remaining in regulation, but the result never really looked in serious danger. Although David West, Paul George and George Hill all finished with efficient scoring stats, the Pacers simply lacked the cutting edge or overwhelming matchup advantage to pull out a victory in Game 4. They can hold out hope for Wednesday's Game 5 in Indianapolis, but it looks increasingly unlikely they can play to the Heat's current level without a considerable resurgence from Hibbert and a return to the all-world defense that has typified their best games over the past year. Otherwise, they lack the necessary inspiration and almost look resigned to their fate.
By contrast, the Heat seem like a team playing well enough to win a title. Some of that can be explained by the Pacers' sluggishness, but we also know enough about this Heat squad to identify what they look like at their best. Now that LeBron and Co. are back at that level, it's like they never left.